Wednesday, 14 January 2015


Say what? Never heard of this one? Can't find it in your Radio Times?

That's because it's on German telly. I'm never going to sit in front of Jeremy Kyle while my daughter is at nursery, but I do like to indulge in a bit of ZDF, Germany's (very loosely defined) equivalent to BBC2, which I can watch online for free on my sofa in York. Mostly I watch the news, and sometimes try and transcribe it, sad geek that I am, pretending that I still have a subtitling career. Occasionally I watch a thriller, since there seems to be a weekly murder mystery set in every different Bundesland, but my God, German police dramas are bad. Yes, Die Rosenheim Cops, I'm particularly talking about you.

I have even been to ZDF. I did a German school exchange to Mainz (where ZDF is based) when I was 15, and the father of my exchange partner was a lawyer for the television station. He was good at getting free tickets to be in the audience of various chat shows and magazine programmes. Not the greatest quality broadcasts you'll ever see, but it's always fun and interesting to see television be made.

But at the start of January, ZDF showed Tannbach, which had me gripped almost as much as Edgar Reitz's absorbing epic Heimat. Although thankfully Tannbach only had 3 episodes and a total running time of 310 minutes (as opposed to Heimat's 3100). And OK, truth be told, it wasn't really a patch on Heimat. But it did leave you with a big sense of "What happened next?" as there was a lot left more to tell.
Not Tannbach - the house high on a hill overlooking the Rhine
used as the home of the main characters in Heimat 3
Tannbach is a small fictional village on the border between Thuringia and Bavaria (but it is evidently based on Mödlareuth). That border is to prove hugely significant, since we are in 1945 in the final days of the war, and Germany is about to be divided by the Allies into zones. Tannbach is initially liberated by the Americans, but after the meeting at Yalta it is taken over by the Russians. But a subsequent re-examination of the state border on an old map reveals that it runs directly through the heart of the village. Which means that unless the Russians and Americans can come to a sensible agreement, the iron curtain is about to run right along the village stream, separating the village into two like a mini Berlin. Needless to say, they don't come to a sensible agreement. Families are divided, hearts are torn, and there are unnecessary and tragic deaths.

There is so much going on in the immediate aftermath of the war it's hard to know where to begin. There are refugees. There are Nazis running underground and Nazis redefining themselves as Communist bureaucrats. There are Jews coming out of hiding and trying to locate their families. There are motherless babies and childless mothers. There is survivors' guilt and the shock of discovering what has happened behind the gates of the concentration camps. There are soldiers with their minds shattered by what they have seen. There is the indignity of foreign invasion and foreign ideology. There is the need to keep secrets, denounce enemies and to preserve standing and escape punishment for past crimes. Persilscheine, Entnazifizierung: there is the need to be officially declared clean in order to move on. For those that aren't, there is the threat of internment camps. There is much betrayal. No one trusts anybody any more, not even within their own family.

Village life seems to have carried on as normal during the war, but suddenly there is a starving population to feed and Germany's farmland is all in the East. The aristocrats lose their land, their large houses are torn down, and people in the Russian zone are resettled over hundreds of miles to farm smallholdings run by communes.

Later, there is the black market and smuggling, which only worsens as the border is fortified. There are people on the make, and people taking sides that they don't believe in simply for self-preservation. There is very much a chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the uncertain future and the pangs for home (Heimat) make decisions impossible, yet split-second choices to stay or go can be the difference between life and death, imprisonment and freedom. Collaboration is all, but collaboration has consequences. One half of the village moves from the control of one secret police to another at the opposite end of the political spectrum. And the leaders of both sides try to brainwash their citizens to convince them that their way is the right way.

Above all, it seems to ask the question, is love for your family enough to make you happy and make you want to stay, whatever happens in the world around you? Needless to say, opinions on this are as divided as the village, as some characters flee at a glancing opportunity, and others remain bound to the land, come what may.
Berlin Wall fragments, sent to me by a penfriend in early 1990
I never went to East Germany while it still existed. My first forays east were post-reunification in 1994. Living in Heidelberg at the time, everyone there actively discouraged travel to the former GDR with a dismissive, "It's just a building site. Go in 20 years when it's all finished." Which meant I instantly set off to have a look. The building site aspect was certainly true, but it was still such an important place to visit. I remember sitting on the ICE train to Berlin, travelling at ridiculous western speed, and suddenly seeing abandoned watchtowers overlooking acres and acres of muddy soil, the forests gone, and the fields ploughed to ruin. This was my first sight of the East. The next was climbing out of the U-Bahn onto a deserted Potsdamer Platz. The Wall had been torn down but at that time nothing had been built in the space left behind, and I found myself standing alone on what felt like an ocean of blank concrete with a bitter March wind tearing through me. The square was once one of the most important and bustling meeting points in Berlin before the Wall turned it into a minefield and no-man's land. It since been entirely redeveloped and regained its commercial importance, but I shall never forget that wilderness in the heart of a troubled, emerging yet jubilant city. I walked a little further past Checkpoint Charlie and then directly through the Brandenburg Gate, something which would have been impossible just five years before. Unter den Linden was a boulevard of fine facades, but behind it were decaying bullet-pocked buildings. Artist colonies and developers were battling (often with each other) to bring them back to life.
Berliner Dom looking towards Alexanderplatz

I travelled on to Halle, Leipzig and Dresden. Halle was depressed and horribly polluted from the nearby brown coal mines. Leipzig was rapidly springing back to be something magnificent. Dresden was simply shocking. Very few of its finer buildings had been restored after the city was blown to bits by the Allies in 1945, and those that were had since been blackened by soot and neglect. An unspeakably ugly avenue of concrete high rises had replaced whatever road had once led from the station to the city centre. (Not that we don't have similarly hideous post-war rebuilds in the UK.) The Frauenkirche, since reconstructed as a beautiful symbol of peace and hope after the reunification, was just a heap of numbered rubble laid out across the grass.

Frauenkirche, Dresden in 1994

And yet great things were being lost, such as free child care, which in turn ended the universal employment of women. Publicly owned assets and companies were rapidly privatised and millions of jobs lost. The farmland of Tannbach was sold off. Subsidised rents were stopped. The economy went bust and exports of East German products became impossible after a low fixing of the East German Ostmark's exchange rate, as they could not compete with the Western market. A lot of teachers and academics were blacklisted as having worked for the Party when they were merely government employees trying to do a decent and enjoyable job. West Germans came back to reclaim their houses in the East forcibly taken from them after the war, but there was no reciprocal arrangement for any East Germans who had lost property in the West. There was a mass exodus from the East, making it difficult to sustain infrastructures and the less desirable properties.

Baustelle Reichstag, Berlin 1999
I made a daytrip to Erfurt in the former GDR from Goettingen in 1998. By then the pace of restoration had accelerated, and the central buildings were mostly bright and vibrant. It no longer seemed any different from towns in the West, My last trip East was when I went back to Berlin in 1999 and stayed for a weekend on my way home from Poznan in Poland.

And now - incredibly - those 20 years I was told to wait are up. By anyone's account, it is time to head back.

I hope that BBC4 buys Tannbach so that everyone in the UK can see it too, in the Saturday night foreign drama slot. But at the same time I hope that they wait long enough for me to have resurrected that subtitling career so that I can translate it for you, Bavarian and all.

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